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Posted: June 12, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Liquor store plan spurs talk about corridors

Officials debate whether corridors should be pedestrian or car focused


These examples of new Kauffman Tire and McDonald's franchises on Ga. Highway 142 met the city of Covington's ordinance requiring storefronts to be closer to the road with no parking spaces in between to improve aesthetics and pedestrian walkability.

A proposal to put a new package store on the Covington Bypass Road has spurred an in-depth discussion about the future of the city’s commercial corridors and what they will and should look like, with some officials’ modern vision for the future clashing with others’ views of what’s realistic.

Freddie Neely, who owns 210-plus acres of land off the Bypass Road, is planning to build a 10,000-square foot, high-end package store across from the newer El Charro and Zaxby’s, but he asked the city for a variance requesting that he be allowed to put his store’s parking spaces next to the road, in between the road and his proposed building.

The request was denied by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, because the city’s ordinances, enacted in 2008, require all new buildings in commercial districts — existing buildings are grandfathered into the law — to have their storefronts directly next to the road with parking allowed on the side or in the rear of the building.

But the case spurred discussion — and has continued to do so – leading the Covington City Council to propose changing the city’s laws to once again allow parking spaces to be placed in between a business and a road.

The question before the council, and interested locals, is ‘What is the best way to move forward?’ and the issues involved are many, including aesthetics, walkability, personal property rights, the reality of the present and the desire for the future.

The case against parking in front

Covington’s ordinances were based on modern development trends, which generally ascribe to the belief that large spaces of asphalt and paved surfaces are ugly and should be hidden as much as possible, while more aesthetically-pleasing storefronts and landscaping should be the more dominant view from the road.

Equally, or even more, important than the aesthetics is the fact that having storefronts closer to roads and the sidewalks that line them is safer for pedestrians who want to use those sidewalks to walk to stores. The idea is that a pedestrian walking to a store is safer if the store’s entrance is closer to the sidewalk as opposed to being separated by a parking lot where cars will be frequently moving. (There is still generally some separation of pavement between the sidewalk and the building for traffic flow for the businesses.)

At a work session last week, Covington Planning Director Randy Vinson said the ordinance recommendation to outlaw parking in front of a commercial building came from a study of the U.S. Highway 278 corridor that said areas of that corridor are “pedestrian hostile” for multiple reasons, including the fact people can’t walk to storefronts without crossing parking lots. (Another reason is there’s little buffer between the sidewalk and U.S. 278 itself, such as regularly spaced trees.)

There are many commercial corridors exactly like U.S. 278 all across the country, and those corridors are fundamentally different from downtowns, including Covington. However, there’s a planning movement that says even these corridors can and should — though not in every case — begin to mirror the downtown style which encourages walking and biking to get to shopping areas.

Senior Planner Scott Gaither said in his reading and research, a common refrain is that the younger generations are attracted to areas that have more compact development and promote walkability. He also said planners by nature consider the long-term picture when implementing trends.

Local officials are now asking whether that movement should apply to all of Covington’s commercial corridors, especially the Bypass Road, which has a speed limit of 55 mph, faster than the other corridors, including U.S. 278, which is only 45 mph.

In addition, part of the Bypass Road was converted in mid-2012 to Ga. Highway 36, continuing from where Ga. 36 meets the Bypass Road coming north toward Covington. The change was made to remove tractor trailer traffic from the Square and downtown.

The case against regulating parking

Attorney Philip Johnson, representing Neely, said the major argument against the ordinance applying to the Bypass Road is the fact it is, and he believes, will continue to be a vehicle-oriented commercial corridor.

El Charro and Zaxby’s were both built before the ordinance change in 2008 and have parking lots in front of their buildings. Covington Ford had to meet the requirement, but it still has cars in between the building and the sidewalk because it uses that space as a showcase.

“There is nothing pedestrian-friendly about the Covington Bypass Road, and it’s not going to be as long as the speed limit is 55 mph,” Johnson said at a work session.

The other argument is that the area isn’t close to a lot of residences and doesn’t have easy pedestrian access.
While planning is all about the future, and what could be, Johnson said he doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume the corridor will ever have heavy pedestrian traffic.

The city’s current law does allow businesses to be granted variances if they meet specific criteria, such as a unique lot shape, that would make it a “hardship” to abide by the parking requirement.

Johnson readily admitted there were no such hardships that applied to the package store under the city’s ordinance; however, the property owner would prefer to keep parking in front of the building because of the nature of the store.
Having parking in the back and a sidewalk in front would require the store to have two active doors on each side; both for customer safety and store safety, the owner would prefer to only have one entrance. If there’s no justification for the parking requirement on the Bypass Road, then the parking requirement unnecessarily infringes on individual property rights, Johnson argues.

Searching for a solution

After the Board of Zoning Appeals denied Neely’s request for a variance, the Covington City Council discussed the issue and decided at a work session to dramatically reduce the effects of the parking law.

Under the council’s ordinance proposal, which already had its first reading at the last council meeting, businesses would only have to obey the more restrictive parking requirements if they were on a road with a speed limit of 45 mph.

However, Planning Commission member Jonathan Paschal said that change totally gutted the city’s ordinance, as there are no commercial corridors, except for downtown Covington, that had a speed limit of less than 45 mph.

Paschal made his comments during a joint work session between the Covington City Council and Planning Commission that lasted an hour and 17 minutes, as all sides of the issues were debated.

Mayor Ronnie Johnston and Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams were the only members of the council to attend the work session. Johnston acknowledged multiple times that the 45 mph change painted too broad of a brush, and he promised he would take the issues back to the council for more discussion.

However, Johnston still believed that every area of the city might not warrant the parking lot restrictions, and he wanted to see the council look at the issue in more depth to differentiate between corridors.

The Planning Commission formally opposed the City Council’s ordinance change by a 4-1 vote with member Ronald Martin opposed (members Pamela Maxwell and John Travis were absent).

The city’s main commercial corridors are U.S. 278, the Bypass Road, Washington Street, downtown Covington and Ga. Highway 142, which has had several businesses meet the new requirements, including Kauffman Tire, Taco Bell, Waffle House, IHOP and McDonald’s. Some businesses of U.S. 278 have also met the requirements, including Wendy’s and McDonald’s.

However, on the Bypass Road corridor, the Neely property is actually one of the biggest players, as ambitious plans have been discussed for the property for years, including potentially turning it into a high-end commercial complex. Mayor Johnston said he’d love to see an open-air, pedestrian-friendly shopping destination there and Philip Johnson didn’t disagree.

Next step

The decision is now up to the council, which is set to vote Monday on the final reading of its proposed ordinance change restricting the parking requirements to only roads with speeds less than 45 mph. The council officially meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall but always has a 6 p.m. work session prior to its meeting.

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